Book Review: Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi
In Akwaeke Emezi’s second YA offering, Bitter, we see the city of Lucille before all the monsters are eviscerated. It is a city rife with anti-blackness, where a select few ultra-rich run things at the expense of the other residents. Assata, a resistance group made up of young black activists, has been at the forefront of the resistance movement against the oppression. On the other end is Eucalyptus: an arts academy for gifted kids where ‘Bitter’, the main character, resides. Bitter is a visual artist with an ability to pull her creations from the canvas to life with her blood and resolve. She pulls out smaller, more delicate creatures when she is lonely. But at the height of the revolution, angry from the suffering her friends have had to endure in the fight against oppression, she brings to life an angel (not unlike the one in Pet) called ‘Vengeance.’ The creature is full of bloodlust and declares that they have come to help the humans hunt down every last monster in Lucille.
The choice to set themes as heavy and complex as revolution, justice and oppression within the parameters of the young adult genre means Emezi has reserves of hope to tap into. Fairly early into the book Mariame Kaba is quoted: “hope is a discipline.” Bitter acknowledges the courage and incredible bouts of hope that young people often exhibit in even the sheer belief of the possibility of a better world. The opening page honours the late Toyin Salau and it feels like a gut punch. The book asks us to remember one such young, courageous person who who was murdered.
Emezi is careful not to glorify martyrdom, however- Toyin should still be alive today. They make sure to make space for both celebrating young people’s historical and current contributions to revolutions, whilst reminding us of how cruel it is that young adults would be driven to sacrificing their lives for the sake of saving a world ruined by adults much older than them.
And not everyone in the book is willing to make such sacrifices. Bitter hides behind the walls of Eucalyptus, rightfully terrified of how dangerous the resistance gets. She hears the sounds of bullets and hears stories of kids just like her injured and struggles to understand why anyone would want to be a part of something so dangerous. Emezi’s construction of Bitter sets out to make readers as privy as possible to the very real fear of the dangers of resistance; that it is understandable to be absolutely terrified, especially considering that young black people have had to endure the trauma of oppressive structures all their lives.
Each of the different young characters in the book illustrates a reaction to the revolution. Emezi makes sure to illustrate the anger and fear manifesting in each character with no judgement. That there is no one (right) way to deal with it, except perhaps to do nothing. Just like the way Assata is a machine of varying moving parts, the book puts so much emphasis on the idea that everyone is essential in resistance. There are those at the forefront, but there are also those who heal, who nurture, who make art, all as a valid form of resistance. The book does well to illustrate that revolution requires everyone to participate, and that everyone’s contributions are of equal importance. We see the reality that not everyone wants to be or even can be on the frontlines with characters like Alex who left Assata for Eucalyptus, but that there are still ways to contribute to your community.
But in as much as Emezi makes clear that everyone has a role to play, there is still so much deserved respect given to those that do choose to be on the frontlines. As a reader that can relate to Bitter more than any of the Assata kids, I cannot help but rever the (usually thankless) job that those on the frontlines commit themselves to doing. Part of Bitter’s pushback is due to the ego bruise she feels from the shame of not being brave enough. Whilst I’m grateful she was given the grace to be freely fearful, given the childhood trauma she had endured, I do not think we should be coddled into feeling better about our roles in the revolution, especially not by those that put their lives on the line.
A big chunk of the action in the book is set within a few hours’ worth of writing. Emezi cleverly quicksteps between developing the plot, and pausing for complex arguments to unfold. When the angels offer to hunt and kill all the monsters, distinct views on how justice should be enacted become evident. Some look at the angel’s presence as a last lifeline, a way to end the oppression once and for all, and that as long as there will no longer be monsters then the means might not be as important. Others don’t agree; they believe that the means justifies the ends, and killing off their oppressors doesn’t make them any better. So much of Bitter pulls from real life resistance movements- the righteous anger, the exhaustion, the tension in conflicting ideas, and sometimes even the hopelessness.
Emezi makes it clear though that the angels are agents of revenge, and not restoration. For readers, the presence of the angels demands us to contemplate what we would do if we were actually given the chance to eliminate our oppressors. To literally burn this world down and build a new one from the ashes.
The citizens of Lucille choose restoration (it might be arguable that this was partly because by then the angels had instilled enough fear to make restoration possible at all) and start to rebuild their post-revolution world bit by bit. We see this world in Pet. We also see the unexpected (or potential) effects of the way the new world is constructed- that even in this utopia, monsters could still find a way to sliver through. There isn’t a perfect answer to any of this.
Akwaeke Emezi relishes in a complicated character. It has become such a staple in their work that Hibiscus, who turns out to be the ‘monster’ in Pet, featuring as a former Assata kid in Bitter is not too surprising. It wouldn’t be an Emezi book if you were not being pushed to the edge of comfort as you read it, and reading that the uncle who abuses a child, was formerly deeply ingrained in the revolution to eliminate harmful people like him was certainly uncomfortable.
But still, the book is underpinned by hope and care. There are safe houses that cannot be infiltrated, pauses to make sure everyone is fed, retreat spaces to escape to when it all gets too much, and reliable adults who truly centre the welfare of these young black kids and believe in their resolve. And there are also elements of sci-fi, which Emezi seamlessly weaves into the story to dare us to imagine beyond what we know to be our reality. Bitter amply borrows from speculative fiction as it tries to imagine a future much better than our current reality via humans’ ability to cast spells with their will, and fantastical spaces and creatures that come from those spells. If any semblance of hope of a better world is already radical, what happens when we dare to stretch that hope beyond what we know to be true in the present? This is not unlike the message from the introduction of Adrienne Maree Brown, Pleasure Activism: “all organising is science fiction- that we are shaping the future we long for and have yet experienced.” Where better to use science fiction than in a story that explores such audacious hope.